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Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Problem with Copying Rory and Jason's Swings

It's been a couple weeks now since I did a post called How You Squeeze the Club's Handle Matters. At the end of it I said you needed some time to digest what was in it, and that I would come back and explain what players like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day are trying to do, and why it's so hard. Of course, we've had the Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup since then, so you should have had time to think about what I wrote in that original post.

Now it's time for me to make good on my promise... and making good on it means this is a fairly long post. I'm sorry, but there's no way around it.

You may remember the photo below, which was the first of three in that post. Classic swings and modern swings focus the grip pressure on different parts of the handle, and this photo shows that difference. As I said in that post, this difference has everything to do with the equipment -- the classic swing uses soft shafts, the modern swing uses stiff shafts. And the other photos showed how this simple change affects the hinging action of the wrists during the swing.

The difference between classic grip pressure and modern swing pressure

Now let's take a look at how these changes, both in equipment and therefore grip pressure, have caused the swing to evolve. You may need to refer back to the other post because I'm not going to repeat all of that information again. But it's not hard to follow along, because this is all very logical.

And if you pay attention, you'll understand why some of the "swing advice" you often hear doesn't help you at all.

All of these changes -- equipment, grip pressure, etc. -- have a number of effects on your swing, but one in particular is important to this conversation, and that's what I'll call your spherical spine axis. Yeah, I know that's a strange term to use, but I want you to imagine a ball joint similar to the ones you have in your shoulders. Those joints allow more than just a simple back-and-forth motion, or an up-and-down motion, or even the rotational twisting motion you use when you twist open a door knob. They allow you to move in all three of those axes. You might think of them as spherical joints.

When you swing your golf club, you get movement on a variety of axes as well. We talk about maintaining your spine tilt during your swing -- that's the angle at which you lean toward the ball. But you also have a sort of pivoting motion where your hips move back and forth along your target line; that's how you create your weight shift and allow your chest to "open" a bit at the top of your backswing and finish. And then there's the rotation of your shoulders as you create your coil. In an efficient swing, the pivot point of all three are very near each other, a point that is most easily understood as being somewhere along the length of your spine.

That point is what I'm calling your spherical spine axis, which I will abbreviate as SSA for the rest of this post. And that point has moved as the golf swing has evolved.

I want you to imagine a letter T. The crossbar of it reaches between your shoulders, and the downward bar runs down your spine. Can you imagine that?

In the classic swing, your SSA is located roughly where the two bars connect -- that is, right at the base of your neck. The swinging motion used with softer shafts doesn't create as much leverage because it's way too easy to overload soft shafts. By creating a high SSA, the amount of leverage is minimized. And that high SSA is in the natural location for the classic swinging motion.

How many of you have been told to "keep your head still"? That's more of a classic swing idea. Just think about it for a minute. With your SSA so close to your head, your head isn't going to move around very much in your swing. If it does, you're moving your upper body a lot... and that means you're moving your SSA around. In a well-made classic swing, your head stays relatively quiet during the swing.

Many of you are familiar with Ernest Jones. In fact, most modern instructors believe he teaches the classic swing and they base their criticism of classic technique on his teachings. But Jones doesn't teach classic swing for soft shafts. Rather, Ernest Jones tried to adapt the classic swing to stiff shafts. It never became popular because the SSA of a classic swing is too high to create the necessary leverage for a stiff shaft.
HOW CAN I BE SURE, you ask? It's simple logic if you know golf history. The R&A was the last of the governing bodies to make steel shafts legal for competition. As I said in the other post, that happened in late 1929. The Ernest Jones book Swing the Clubhead was published in 1937, over 8 years later! There is no logical reason for him to assume his readers were still using hickory shafts.
In addition, he says in the book that he teaches a pendulum swing, and it's a fact of basic physics that pendulums do NOT use leverage. This is why the classic swing never became the dominant way to swing steel-shafted clubs -- players couldn't get them to load with a pendulum swing, so they couldn't get the distance they wanted. That's not a problem since graphite shafts came along, but it was a very real problem until then.
It took until the early 1940s for players to figure out how to load the stiffer shafts. Byron Nelson became the first to successfully do so when he realized he needed extra leg drive to create the necessary leverage. Sam Snead said the change from hickory to steel was the hardest thing the pros had to make. And each man approached the problem in his own way.

Nelson bent both knees toward the target to create load; he still wasn't particularly long but was unbelievably accurate. Snead bent the knees in opposite directions -- the infamous "Snead Squat" -- which created a greater loading on the club and gave him much more distance. And why did this work?

The increased knee action -- and this was primarily knee action, a slight downward flex with an upward push (ie, they straightened their lead knee at impact) created a bit more forward hip movement. The net effect of this action was to lower the SSA down the spine slightly. (The head moved a bit more as well. "Keep your head still" became less useful as a swing thought! At this point, teachers began to recommend a slight head movement away from the ball at impact.)

It wasn't a huge change, but it was enough to load the stiffer shafts of the time and create more distance. Even in the mid-1950s, the great player and teacher Tommy Armour recommended in his book How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time that weekend players should get softer shafts than they believed they needed. Softer shafts meant greater distance with less effort, so weekend players could focus more on making good swings than on generating distance.

I should point out that golfers using the "drop down" loading technique don't seem to have had the back problems we see nowadays. Just look at how long -- and how well -- players from that generation were able to play without debilitating back pain. Players like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- each with his own very distinctive swing -- rarely if ever had to withdraw from tournaments because of recurring pain.

And then Hogan showed up, focusing on the concept we now call connection. And the practical result of keeping the upper arms so close to the player's side during the downswing, in concert with his belief that you needed to focus on forward hip movement during the downswing, effectively lowered the SSA even farther down the spine, perhaps to the bottom of the rib cage. And that created a dramatic increase in lower back pressure, as you can see in the so-called "Reverse-C" finish that became common among those who copied Hogan's swing. (And rendered "keep your head still" totally useless.)

Which brings us to the modern day. With the vast amount of measuring equipment available to us, we've gone absolutely nuts trying to create the maximum amount of leverage we can... but that has created a new problem. If you're using your feet and lower body to create as much leverage as possible, you've moved the power source so far from the clubhead that it's almost impossible to control direction. That's a primary reason that you see so many new swing theories popping up. It's a search for control without losing any leverage.

The classic swing's pendulum motion made it much easier for the hands to control direction because the body, while it was moving, was relatively quiet. (Remember that the head naturally moves less during a classic swing.) But how do you increase control when the power creation system is moving the body so much more? You have two choices:
  1. You can try to limit your lower body movement. Some players restrict their hip turn on the way back in hopes of increasing the leverage in the swing while also minimizing body movement in hopes of increasing accuracy. However, this puts a tremendous strain on your lower back. Hello, Jason Day and Michelle Wie! Does this sound familiar?
  2. You can try to increase your strength enough that you can create leverage with your trailing hand. This is an attempt to combine some of the classic swing hand techniques with the modern leverage techniques. The problem is that you end up working against yourself to a large degree. You're combining a classic control technique (high SSA) with a modern leverage creation technique (low SSA), and that creates a lot of conflicting stresses in your back. If everything goes perfectly, you can get good results... but it takes a ridiculous amount of practice and time in the weight room. And that extra practice creates wear and tear of its own.
And many players are trying to do both at the same time. Can you say "ouch"?

Compare this approach with players like Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson or Jim Furyk, whose swings are more like Nelson and Snead. Look at Rocco Mediate on the Champions Tour, who used to have chronic back problems until he changed his swing. For Pete's sake, look at Stacy Lewis and Ken Duke -- both of whom have had scoliosis and yet play without chronic back problems! Those last three have swings that are more like what Ernest Jones would have taught but using a modern grip. (And again, I have to point out that modern graphite gives us the option to use shafts that are more flexible but don't have the inconsistency that plagued hickory. We have a lot more swing options these days.)

I guess my point here is that copying your favorite pro isn't necessarily the easiest way to become a better golfer. Many of the pros, in pursuit of some nebulous advantage over their opponents, are trying to combine swing elements that don't naturally work together. When they can make them work, it's a constant struggle -- both from a maintenance and a durability standpoint -- to keep them working. And for many players, it's becoming a question of whether these hybrid swings are going to shorten their careers.

As a weekend player, you may have to consider whether you want to swing like your favorite pro or whether you'd rather play golf for a long time. Because I'll tell you the truth -- there are simpler ways to play this game than watching the pros might lead you to believe.


  1. A very interesting post, as was the previous post several days ago. I am going to have to read both of them several times over during the next couple of days to take it all in. An interesting thought keeps coming into my mind about matching graphite shafted clubs with the Classical swing.

    1. That SHOULD come to mind, Jeffrey. The classic swing fell into disuse because of the lack of good equipment, not because the swing was ineffective. My own experiments are coming along well so far.

      We have a lot more options these days than most players realize.

  2. If someone was inclined to switch to graphite and a Classic Swing, is there a book or classic instructor you would recommend. Or do I sense an new upcoming book?

    1. Although it's not "pure" classic swing -- that is, it doesn't teach the classic grip as I showed it in the posts -- Understanding the Golf Swing by the late Manuel de la Torre is probably the best book to use. de la Torre taught a variation of Ernest Jones, with all ten fingers applying pretty much equal pressure. But it's a great book for learning most of the classic swing technique, as he shows how to hit all kinds of shots and how to troubleshoot problems in your swing. He taught several major winners as well. Many of my readers say the book really changed the way they play golf. It's easy to find too.

      As for the grip, the best explanation I've found of how it works is Harry Vardon's The Complete Golfer, published in 1905 and -- at least here in the US -- in the public domain. You can find it at Project Gutenberg at:

      There are several formats you can download but the html version is probably the easiest to use. Chapter 5 is where he discusses the grip, including -- and this info is hard to find -- how to measure the movement inside the grip that lets you control the soft shaft flex and feel the clubhead. This is the best place to learn how that "two-finger" classic grip is supposed to work. But I'd advise avoiding this book for now (see below).

      I am planning a book but it's going to be a while until my swing studies are complete. But for now, de la Torre's book is probably the best thing for you to study. Vardon had to deal with shaft torque -- something we don't have to worry about with modern graphite shafts -- and that can make his instructions seem confusing if you don't know what to avoid. (Which you probably won't!)

      Just be aware that you can use the two-finger pressure with de la Torre's grip and get roughly the same results as you would with Ernest Jones's book Swing the Clubhead. But de la Torre's book will teach you how to use the swing much better than Jones's ever will. You can always add the Vardon technique later if you wish.

    2. Oops! I forgot to mention that de la Torre's technique will still let you use softer shafts. They might not be as soft as a "pure" classic swing would, but they'll be plenty soft enough to help you feel the clubhead better when you swing. That will help both your rhythm and your ability to hit the ball solidly.

  3. Thanks Mike. You have talked about de la Torre several times and I have been meaning to look him up.